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Can I Choose My 12-Year-Old's Friends?

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, as well as the blog Ben and Birdy. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her partner and their son and daughter who have mysteriously become as...

He's hanging with a questionable crew — & he might be the ringleader

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Welcome to Survivor, in which author Catherine Newman tries to answer your questions about adolescents and why they’re like that — and how to love them despite everything.

Have a question for Newman? Send it to her here.

Question: 

My 12-year-old son has recently been hanging out with a group of boys that, shall we say, are not bringing out the best in each other. This is not a case of my perfect angel being led astray — he's a willing participant, maybe even a ringleader. He's still excelling at school and sports and treats us with kindness and respect. The boys' knucklehead moves are pretty low stakes (we got kicked out of the ice cream place! We bought Red Bull!). But like so much else in middle school, this feels like a fork in the road. To the left, too cool for school and daring each other to do stupid, maybe illegal things. To the right, general teenage dumbassery but largely responsible, mature choices. His older brothers always stayed well to the right, so this is my first time with a kid at this particular fork. Is there any role for me at all? Or should I just let him make these choices for himself and trust that his innate smarts and decency will keep him from anything really awful?

Answer: 

*Sigh* Of course, I read your question as a parent, and I’m right there with you — the drumbeats of grand theft auto and imminent shooting-up pounding in my ears. Red Bull is, of course, the gateway to Molotov cocktails, as everyone knows.

Well, everyone except my own kids, apparently, who were more moderate in their responses. Seventeen feels like it really all depends on the vibe you’re getting from the situation. “If it’s really more or less that everything is fine, then let it be fine. He’s kind, he’s respectful, this is OK. But if it’s that things are spiraling, then you could say that to him. But you don’t want to tell him who to hang out with. You’ll just make him lie and keep secrets from you. The more you’re open and transparent, the more he’s going to keep you in the loop.” (And the Mama butting in here: You are clearly in the loop, which is so wonderful. He is sharing the shenanigans, and I think it’s important to thank him for that since, of course, that’s a choice he’s making — and a good one.)

More from 17: “You can’t just be like, 'Welp, that’s the end of that friend group.' Whatever decisions you’re hoping to make, you have to convince your kids that those are good decisions. All the worst examples of parent-kid relationships are parents who make rules that don’t resonate with their kids. The kids will never follow a rule they don’t stand by. Like, if you don’t want your kid to shoplift? You can’t just make a no-shoplifting rule. You have to make a compelling case to your kid for why they feel like they shouldn’t shoplift. You have to get to the root of it. You have to get your kid on board.”

This, I think, is good advice, if a little strange to think about. I mean, shoplifting (which your child is not doing, I realize) is just plain illegal and wrong, so saying, “No shoplifting,” seems kind of like a no-brainer to me, like, “No killing anyone!” But I think 17 is right. And I think that the best way to communicate your concerns is through — couples therapy alert! — the good all-purpose I-statement. “I’m worried about you guys being tempted to do bad things.” “I am hoping that you guys keeping finding ways to be together that are safe.” Or even more simply, “I’m kind of stressed about the direction this friend group is headed. Are you? Do you need help figuring anything out?” 

Fourteen mostly feels like you should go ahead and give your son a little space and time to figure himself out, but says, “You should end literally every conversation with, 'You can always talk to me. Even if it’s about something I said I wish you wouldn’t do.' That’s the most important thing. It’s so stressful because on the one hand you trust your kid. But some things can ramp up so quickly. Drug things, the kinds of things where you don’t get a chance to go back.” She also, because she is Obi-Wan Kenobi, feels like you should try to let him learn from his mistakes and then step in if he needs guidance.

Fourteen, also because she is an old lady, thought that you should role model “the pleasure of sitting down with a nice cup of tea and a great board game.”

The idea of Earl Grey and Connect Four made 17 laugh. “I don’t think that’s really going to compete with the stuff they’re doing.” We talked about thrilling behavior and how it releases dopamine — that’s what makes it so compelling, so addictive. “The problem,” 17 observed, “is that the other thrilling things are so expensive. Snowboarding. White-water rafting. Going to Six Flags.” I wondered if you might volunteer to spring for an activity like that just to mix it up a little bit. Or if you could take them on a rigorous hike or teach them to skateboard. Anything to simulate the brain chemicals of the edgier stuff. The teens thought this was a good idea.

And I can’t conclude without mentioning how impressed 17 was that you don’t think of your kid as the perfect one who’s been led astray. “Although,” he admitted, “he might be easier to persuade if that were true.” *Sigh*

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